Plenty, by Yotam Ottolenghi: Recipe for Socca with Roasted Tomatoes, Swiss Chard and Goat Feta (Gluten-free)

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One of my birthday gifts was the cookbook Plenty, by Yotam Ottolenghi. Ottolenghi, whose Israeli heritage has obviously shaped his approach to food, is a chef in London, and also writes on vegetarian and other types of cooking for the Guardian newspaper. I was really excited to get this book, as one of my sisters is a rabid fan of Ottolenghi’s writing in the Guardian (well, she’s a rabid fan of many things in the Guardian, but particularly of Ottolenghi!). As I leafed through the book, it struck me immediately that these were different from the vegetarian recipes I was used to: they seemed lighter, with a greater emphasis on vegetables rather than trying to simulate meat dishes, and they made heavy use of Middle Eastern and Asian flavors. This is a great book to check out if your primary vegetarian cookbooks have always been of the Moosewood cookbook variety.

In comparison with another recent acquisition, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, this book seems less accessible to the inexperienced cook. First of all, the book is organized according to the primary vegetable used in the recipe. Initially, this seemed to me like an excellent system, especially for a cook who was interested in eating seasonally. I pictured myself plucking a strange vegetable from my CSA (community supported agriculture) box, (perhaps one fitting the theme of the chapter titled “Funny Onions”?), locating the relevant chapter, and going on my merry way to cooking a masterpiece of seasonal appropriateness. However, the more I tried to figure out how to fit this book into our daily cooking, the more I realized that this is not actually the way I plan my meals: I think that categories such as “curries,” or “noodles”, or “salads” (hopelessly old-fashioned, I know!) are more helpful when you are trying to figure out which recipe might be appropriate to a certain day, pantry situation, or level of hunger.

The other criticism I have of this book is that, in comparison to the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook or some of my other favorites, such as Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, the instructions for each recipe are somewhat scanty, and there are few “process” photographs and no illustrations. It’s often hard to visualize exactly what the author is describing, and there are few tips or pointers to reassure you. One of the things I find most useful about the Smitten Kitchen cookbook, for example, is the fact that the author will tell you “the dough should have enough flour incorporated so that it does not stick to your fingers” or “the fritters should be golden brown after 1 minute: if they are not, turn down the heat.” It’s tips like this that actually ensure that you will have success with recipes, so I will be interested to see cooking with this cookbook will be more challenging. It’s certainly not a book for a beginning cook.

So, what is this book good for, then? Inspiration! Many of the recipes combine ingredients in ways that I would never have thought of, to make less-usual categories of food such as cold noodle salads, flatbreads with toppings, etc. One featured ingredient that I had never used before is chickpea flour (sometimes sold as garbanzo flour, or pakora flour, since it’s what those Indian fritters are made of). I had, however, eaten chickpea flour many times, because I love love love pakoras, and I had also eaten socca, a Provencal chickpea flat bread, while in Europe several years ago. I made a variation on Ottolenghi’s recipe for Socca, which appears in the “pulses” section of the book. While Ottolenghi served his version with a tomato, onion and thyme topping, I made a topping of tomatoes, chard, fresh herbs and goat feta. Ottolenghi adds two egg whites, beaten to stiff peaks, to his socca batter. I omitted these to make the recipe quicker, since I had seen socca recipes without eggs, and the pancakes were delicious.

Note re: chickpea flour:

I think chickpea flour will become one of my new favorite ingredients: it’s tasty, high in protein and iron (good for vegetarians), and it’s also gluten free (I’m not gluten-intolerant, but I sometimes cook for people who are, so it’s good to have some GF recipes up my sleeve). Surprisingly, it wasn’t available in the bulk section of my local (extremely well-stocked) food co-op, but I finally located it in the baking aisle. The kind I bought was made by Bob’s Red Mill. It can also be found in the bulk section of natural foods stores, or in bulk stores, or in grocery stores that carry South Asian/Indian foods.

The Recipe: Socca with Roasted Tomatoes, Swiss Chard, and Goat Feta

Ingredients

For the socca:
1 3/4 cups chickpea flour (see Note above)
2 cups water
pinch salt
1 teaspoon olive oil (for the batter)
canola oil for frying (or other neutral vegetable oil)

For the topping:
2 pints cherry tomatoes (2 small containers) – You could also use large tomatoes, cut in quarters. I used cherry tomatoes because I was making this in the winter, when cherry tomatoes have better flavor than other kinds, but I would make this with large tomatoes if they were in season.
1 tbsp. olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1 bunch fresh mint (about 1 cup, chopped)
1 bunch fresh basil (about 1 cup chopped)
1 large bunch swiss chard (about 6-8 cups, chopped roughly)
about 6 oz goat-milk feta – You could use sheep-milk feta or cow-milk feta but I like the flavor of goat-milk feta

Equipment note: You will need to use a frying pan to cook the pancakes, and the swiss chard. I used a large saute pan to cook the swiss chard, and a cast-iron frying pan to cook to the pancakes. If you don’t own two frying pans, cook the Swiss chard first, set it aside, and use the same pan to make the pancakes.

Method

Preheat the oven to 400F. Cut each cherry tomato in half and put the tomatoes in a baking dish (I used a ceramic casserole dish). Drizzle olive oil over top and season with salt and pepper. Place in the preheated oven and roast until they are starting to shrivel and release juice – about 30 minutes.

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They will look like this when they are done:

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Wash the swiss chard, and chop it roughly:
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Make the socca batter. Put the chickpea flour in a bowl and add water, oil and salt. Whisk until it reaches a smooth consistency. Leave the batter to sit for a few minutes, then whisk again and add a little water if it seems too stiff. It should be a thick, pourable batter, like pancake batter.

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Fry the swiss chard with a little olive oil until it is soft, but not mushy (about 10 minutes).

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While the Swiss chard is frying, make the socca pancakes. Heat a spoonful of oil in the frying pan, wait until it is hot, and pour in a large spoonful of the batter. I think I used about 1/4 cup of batter per pancake. Wait until bubbles appear on the top of the pancake, and the top of the pancake is no longer wet-looking and appears solid.

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Flip the pancake over, but don’t worry if it breaks – you will be eating this mixed up with the toppings anyways!

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While the pancakes are frying, chop the basil and mint, and set the table with bowls containing the herbs, feta (crumbled), swiss chard and roasted tomatoes.

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Everyone can help themselves to a pancake and top it with vegetables, herbs and cheese!

Recipe: Spicy September Noodles

We are drowning happily in good vegetables these days from our CSA membership to Harmony Valley Farm. I came up with this recipe to use up some veggies and I’m quite happy with it! It’s slightly reminiscent of pad thai, but less work and a bit lighter tasting. It’s slightly reminiscent of pad thai, but less work and a bit lighter tasting. I’ve called it “September Noodles” because eggplant, peppers, basil and cucumbers are all really amazing right now (and cheap!)

And yes, I do like spicy Asian eggplant dishes.

Ingredients:

1 asian eggplant (pale purple skin, long and skinny)
2 red bell peppers (I used about 8 miniature sweet peppers, which we get from the CSA)
one onion (I used a red onion)
1 block extra-firm tofu
1 package wide rice noodles (I used Thai Kitchen “stir-fry noodles”)
2 tbsp. San-J spicy Szechuan Sauce (for Canadian readers, this seems to be similar to PC Memories of Szechwan Spicy Peanut Sauce, but without the peanuts. Also, it’s not as good, let’s be frank. But us expats have to make do with what we have.)
1 tbsp. soy sauce
canola oil

to serve:
1 lime
1/2 cup dry-roasted unsalted peanuts
small handful fresh basil
1 cucumber

Method

Slice the eggplant into 1/2 inch slices. Heat up about 2 tsp. oil in a cast-iron frying pan. Place eggplant slices in hot pan in one layer and cook on high heat until they are soft and slightly charred. This will take about 5 minutes per side. The smoke alarm may go off!

Boil water in a kettle. Place rice noodles in bowl, and pour boiling water over noodles. Let soak in hot water for 10 minutes, and then drain.

Cut onion in half, and then cut each half in thin slices. Cut the tofu into one inch cubes, slice the red peppers, and cut the cooked eggplant into one inch cubes.

Heat 1 tbsp. oil in a wok (we have a non-stick wok – if you don’t, you may need more oil). Add the onion slices and fry for one minute. Add the tofu, and fry until tofu is lightly browned and the onions are soft and beginning to caramelize. Use high heat and don’t stir too much – if you move the tofu around too much it will not brown as nicely. This will probably take 5-7 minutes.

While the onions and tofu are frying prepare the garnishes. Finely slice the basil, and cut the lime into wedges. Grind the peanuts into smallish “crumbs” using the food processor, or by putting them into a ziploc bag and smashing them with a rolling pin. Cut the cucumber into thirds, and then cut each third into slices, then cut each slice into strips.

Once the tofu is lightly browned, add the red pepper slices, and stir fry for about three minutes. Add the Szechwan sauce and soy sauce to the pan, along with about 1/4 cup water, and stir until the tofu is coated with sauce. Add the drained noodles, and stir-fry until the noodles are heated through, about 1 minute. Add more soy sauce to taste. Add fresh basil and stir to combine.

Serve in bowls with cucumber strips, peanuts and lime wedges.

Recipe: Sweet and Spicy Szechwan Style Eggplant with Tofu

Greetings from Ontario, Canada’s Variety Vacationland!

(I just bought this awesome postcard a few days ago, one of several good ones by Canadian Culture Thing)

Things in Vacationland are strikingly similar to RealLifeLand, and primarily consist of reading (A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth), visiting family, swimming, cooking and knitting. I just wrote up this recipe for one of my favourite dishes and figured I might as well share it. I have been known to eat massive amounts of this sort of dish in a good Chinese restaurant, so I’ve been trying to perfect it for several years. This last attempt was particularly good, if I do say so myself, so here it is:

Bronwen’s Sweet and Spicy Szechwan Style Eggplant with Tofu

Ingredients:

For frying:
3 asian eggplants (long and skinny, pale purple)
1 block firm or extra firm tofu
1 red bell pepper
2 inches long piece of fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup peanut or canola oil, or enough to fill your pan to 1 inch

For sauce (adjust to taste)
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tbsp sesame oil
4 drops Tabasco or to taste
1/2 cup water, or to taste

To serve:
1 tbsp rice vinegar (I used Chinkiang black rice vinegar)
about 10 leaves fresh basil, finely slices (roll it up and slice it)

Method:

Cut the tofu into slices about 1/2 inch thick, then cut the slices into triangles: stack all the slices up, then make four cuts into the stack – one slice across, one slice up and down, and two diagonals. Hard to explain. I don’t know why the triangles are better, but they are.

Lay the tofu out in one layer on a clean tea-towel (which I used), or paper towel. It fries better when it’s dry.

Cut the eggplants lengthways in half, then lengthways again into quarters. I’ve found that the long pieces give you the best texture, because the insides get yummy and soft without the edges getting dried out. Put them on a tea-towel too, for the same reason.

Fry the tofu (if you’re feeling virtuous, you can skip this step and just add plain tofu to the sauce and eggplant at the end, but this way is yummier). Pour the oil into your pan to a depth of 1 inch. I normally use a wok, but this time I used a cast iron frying pan – I think it makes the flavour better because there is more charring on the eggplant, but it’s a bit more of a pain. Stick a piece of tofu in the oil to test the temperature. Turn the heat on high and keep it there – I was always squeamish about hot frying oil, but if you turn the heat down the oil will soak into the food. High heat is key. Watch it like a hawk and ventilate – have your husband standing by to turn off the smoke alarm! Once the test piece of tofu starts to bubble around the edges, add the tofu to the pan. Try to keep it in a single layer. Fry it, at high heat and without moving it around, for at least five minutes, or until it starts to become visibly golden brown on the bottom. Flip it and repeat (takes a little less time on the second side). Remove the tofu with a slotted spoon and drain it on a clean rag (yes, I’m a hippie), or paper towel.

Fry the eggplant. Drain off some of the oil in the pan if necessary until you have about 1/2 inch left. Keeping the heat on high, place the oblong pieces of eggplant into the pan with one of the the cut (non-skin), side down. Fry (about 5 min?), until the cut side is lightly browned. Turn it so the other cut side hits the pan, and repeat. By this point, the eggplant should be mushy and it should smell sweet. Mushiness is key. Keep the eggplant always in one layer – with a standard cast-iron frying pan I had to do the eggplant in two batches. Remove the cooked eggplant to your absorbent draining surface of choice.

Turn the heat down slightly, and add the red peppers, chopped in one inch squares, and the garlic and ginger, finely chopped, to the pan. It’s important to add the garlic along with everything else, not before, or it will burn. Stir-fry this mixture until the peppers are fairly soft and smell sweet. Add the sauce ingredients, including 1/2 cup water, to the pan. You want there to be an excess of sauciness, because some will be soaked up by the tofu and eggplant when you add it. Wait until the sauce is boiling and cook until slightly thickened – about one minute. Taste the sauce and adjust seasonings, especially spiciness.

Add the fried eggplant pieces and tofu to the pan and cook in the sauce with the peppers until everything is heated through and soaked in sauce. Add the rice vinegar, tasting to adjust seasoning, and the chopped basil, and mix everything up. Serve over rice.

Vij’s at Home: Relax, Honey [it’s vegetarian]

Goat Curry

Goat Curry at Rangoli photo by mellowfood @ Flickr (Creative Commons License)

One of the best meals I’ve had in a while was the dinner we had last summer at Vij’s Rangoli in Vancouver, at the very end of our honeymoon. Rangoli is the more casual sister restaurant (which also sells prepared meals to take home) of the elegant Indian restaurant Vij’s; both restaurants are owned and operated by Vikram Vij and his wife Meeru Dhalwala. Vikram Vij also writes occasional articles for the Globe and Mail newspaper, including recipes, like this one for Boatman’s Curry.

What made our meal at Rangoli so good? We love love love Indian food, but that’s not why. It was because it was really really really good Indian food: the ingredients were fresher, the flavours were more interesting, and the combinations of dishes were satisfying and varied. One of the things I liked about the restaurant was the fact that, unlike in many Indian restaurants, you ordered a combination plate, with, for example, black chickpea pakoras, rice pilaf, and portobello mushrooms in creamy curry, or, quinoa salad, spicy beet greens and a lamb kebab, instead of ordering a number of dishes accompanied by plain rice. We still shared tastes of each other’s dishes – my husband and I were treating his aunt to dinner, which meant we sampled 9 dishes all together, I believe – but I liked having the preset combinations because a) the chef is probably better at picking combinations of flavours than I am and b) it meant that our starchy side dishes were more interesting than plain rice, and that the flavours of the pilafs, potatoes, grains, etc. could complement the other dishes.

So, you can imagine I was pretty excited to discover Vij’s at Home: Relax Honey: The Warmth and Ease of Indian Cooking on the new books shelf at the Madison Public Library (here’s the catalog record, FYI).

This cookbook is even better than I expected. The recipes range from dead easy to fairly uncomplicated, there are lots of interesting tidbits included about ingredients (especially spices) and life and business at the restaurant (including recommendations from the kitchen staff, who seem to be mainly, if not entirely, Punjabi immigrants to Canada who come from smaller villages than Vikram and Meeru, and therefore have different ideas about food). The couple has two daughters, who also appear in the book, along with some of their favourite dishes, including a really yummy-looking butter-chicken oven-fried schnitzel with dipping sauce. I also really enjoyed reading about Vikram and Meeru’s life at home, which appears to be more family-oriented and relaxed than the average restaurant power couple’s. The book opens with a quite evocative description of how Vikram and Meeru’s decision to turn their study/playroom nto a proper dining room had a powerful affect on their approach to both family meals and entertaining. But, I have a bone to pick here: there’s no proper photo of the dining room in question!

But that’s a small quibble, really, and it just serves to show how readable and friendly this book is. I think the strongest aspect of the book is the balance it strikes between teaching you how to make straightforward Indian specialties, and introducing you to new ideas, techniques, and ingredients. The result is food that is “Indianish,” while taking advantage of the excellent ingredients (especially seafood and produce), that is available locally in Vancouver. We’ve joined a CSA (community supported agriculture) farm-share for the summer, so our vegetable supply these days is quite varied; Vikram and Meeru also rely on a CSA to supply some of the produce for their restaurants, and the cookbook includes recipes to help you use up seasonal supplies like beet greens, celeriac/celery root, and less-than-perfect apples. It’s also really helpful that each recipe includes a “Serve With” suggestion that will help you to make good combinations like they serve at Rangoli.

Madhur Jaffrey in her Quick and Easy Indian Cooking, Vikram and Meeru also suggest that you use a pressure cooker for some of their recipes, particularly meat curries made with tougher cuts like goat. We don’t have a pressure cooker, and we eat vegetarian at home, so I’m unlikely to try out this suggestion, but I have to admit I’m intrigued by the idea of cooking dried chickpeas in a matter of minutes rather than hours! If anyone has used a pressure cooker to cook pulses or curry, please let me know in the comments! My parents did often use theirs to cook beets (another time-consuming vegetable to cook), and to make beef stew, which is not far from curry as cooking methods go.

These are the recipes from this book I want to try:

roasted eggplant raita
beet greens sauteed in ginger, lemon and cumin
cuuried deviled eggs
quinoa salad with lentil sprouts
portobello mushrooms with red bell peppers and creamy curry
rapini and shitake mushroom curry
black chickpea pakoras
eggplant and navy beans in kalonji and tamarind curry

I’ll definitely keep you posted on the results!

Comfortable (a recipe for lentil shepherd’s pie)

Once I had recovered sufficiently from my flu last week to think of cooking, I wanted to try out something I’d read about, coincidentally, in both Apple Betty & Sloppy Joe and in that unexpected free issue of Cook’s Country Magazine: making mashed potatoes with an electric mixer.

When I was learning to cook, I remember my dad telling me that if you overwhipped mashed potatoes, as he sometimes did by mistake while using an immersion blender, they would become gummy and unpleasant. So I had always avoided electrical help, and used the world’s best potato masher to make my mashed potatoes. But the potato masher got lost in the move, and so I decided to try out the mixer-method in one of my favorite vehicles for mashed potatoes: vegetarian lentil shepherd’s pie.

This is my own recipe, and it changes a little every time I make it, but I thought this latest attempt was particularly good, because I decided to make caramelized onion “jam” for the filling.

Ingredients

Makes at least 6 servings

for the onion “jam”
4 large onions (yes, you read that right)
2 tsbp olive oil

for the lentil base

4 cups brown lentils
8 cups water
2 tsp adobo seasoning (I use the version from Penzey’s)
2 tsp granulated garlic or 2 cloves garlic
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp ketchup
2 vegetable bouillon cubes (I use Knorr)
2 tsp dried thyme

for the mashed potatoes

8 medium potatoes (Yukon Gold or other floury potatoes_
3/4 cup 2% milk
1/4 cup butter
salt and pepper to taste

Method

At least three hours before you want to eat, cut the peeled onions in half, then cut the halves into thin slices. Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy pot (I used an enameled cast-iron dutch oven) and put the onions in to cook. Cook the onions over low to medium heat for at least one hour, stirring occasionally. If you hear sizzling, the heat is too high. At first, the onions will give off a large amount of liquid, and look mushy. They will then start to caramelize. They are ready whenever they look yummy to you! They will cook down to at least half of their initial volume, so don’t despair if it looks like an enormous amount of onions at the beginning.

*Since this takes so long, I would actually double this part of the recipe and use 8 onions. You can freeze the onion “jam” and/or use it in other recipes, and it’s a good way to cook up a bunch of onions if you have some that are slightly “on the edge” of freshness. My husband used only about 1/4 cup of the “jam” as the base for a very good chickpea/spinach/quinoa salad for example.

To make the lentil base, put the lentils in another large pot (stockpot or similar), and add the water and all the seasonings. Bring this to a boil and then turn down to simmer. Check every ten minutes to see if the liquid is used up – what you want to end up with is soft cooked lentils with not very much liquid in them – about a porridgey consistency. This should take about an hour.

You can vary the seasonings in the lentils depending on what you have on hand. I sometimes use worcestershire sauce or Marmite to give a “meaty” flavor, or toss in whatever I have in the fridge that seems good: tomato paste, roasted red peppers, fresh herbs. I find the thyme, soy sauce, and bouillon cubes are really essential to give it sufficient flavor.

You can cook both the lentils and the onions in advance – the lentils actually taste better if you cook them and then leave them overnight.

On the day you plan to eat, boil the potatoes according to your preferred method and prepare to make the mashed potatoes using an electric mixer. Heat the milk in a small pan till it’s the temperature of hot coffee (not boiling – I would have done this in the microwave, but we don’t have one). It’s probably a good idea to preheat your oven to 375 F at this point too. I used my stand mixer to make the mashed potatoes, but you can use a hand-held mixer too. Put the boiled potatoes in the mixer bowl, and beat them with a normal paddle attachment (not the whisk) at low speed, then moving to medium speed (speeds 2-4 on a KitchenAid). Add the butter and keep mixing. Then add the hot milk, and salt and pepper to taste. I would estimate that I beat the potatoes for at least five minutes at speed 4, so there is no need to fear over mixing. The more I beat them, the better they became!

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They were the best mashed potatoes I have ever made: fluffy, smooth, but with a few chunks to vary the texture, and not at all gummy.

To assemble the shepherd’s pie, lightly oil the bottom and sides of a 9×12 pyrex or ceramic baking dish (or you can use cooking spray). Pour in a layer of lentils about 3 inches deep, then add the onions. Important: You will probably have either onions or lentils left over. Don’t overfill the dish, and leave enough space for a nice layer of potatoes. Use the leftover lentils to make another pie later, or as a base for soup.

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Then top the whole thing with the mashed potatoes. Take a fork, and drag the tines up and down the mashed potatoes, like you were making furrows in a field. Using a pastry brush, brush the potatoes with milk, which will help them to brown in the oven. Bake at 375 F for 30 minutes, or until the top of the potatoes are golden with a few brown bits.

Enjoy! and enjoy all the leftovers – the flavor improves over the course of a few days.